‘I feel like I came back home.’ Members of Northeastern’s first Black fraternity reunite for weekend-long 50th anniversary party

Members of Iota Phi Theta hugging each other.
Founding members of Iota Phi Theta reunite at Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute for a public meeting to mark the fraternity’s 50th anniversary on Sept. 23, 2023. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Iota Phi Theta fraternity’s early days were set against a backdrop of national tension — the civil rights movement in the South, bussing in the city of Boston and eruptions of racial violence across the country. 

Fifty years later, the mood around the brotherhood on the Boston campus couldn’t be more joyous or relaxed.

This weekend, members of Iota Phi Theta’s Omicron chapter — the first Black fraternity at Northeastern University — came together with friends, loved ones, fellow Greek organizations and members of Boston’s Black community to celebrate the fraternity’s 50th anniversary. 

Held on the university’s Boston campus, the festivities honored members of the chapter’s “Lost Colony” founding line. 

“I feel like I came back home,” said Shelley Stewart, a founding Omicron member and one of the organizers of the weekend. “We ate here, we slept here, we partied here, we learned here.”

On Saturday, about 200 celebrants gathered at the university’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute for a public meeting, a storied tradition in Black Greek life for mobilizing, debating issues and engaging with the local community. 

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun congratulated the fraternity’s founders on the anniversary milestone. 

“You have created something that will live forever,” he told the group, singling out Brother Lonnie C. Spruill Jr., the last surviving founder of the national Iotas organization.

Aoun then reaffirmed the university’s support of affirmative action in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling this summer that race-conscious admissions programs are unconstitutional. He called upon the assembled members of the Black Greek community to aid the university in attracting and nurturing Black students.

“We are committed as a university and a community to affirmative action,” he said. “Is it going to be harder? Absolutely. Do we have to be more creative? Absolutely. What you all have been organizing and doing is going to be essential moving forward.” 

Other speakers included Tarae Howell, a Massachusetts attorney and the Iotas treasurer; African American Institute director Richard O’Bryant; Craig Spencer, the international organization’s grand secretary and Eric James, an Iota currently working in Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s office. 

Iota Phi Theta was founded in 1963 at Morgan State University in Maryland, part of the Divine Nine network of Black fraternities and sororities. When the Omicron chapter came to Northeastern a decade later, it was part of a larger effort to bring the community and organizing prowess the Black Greek organizations had built in the South up to the northeastern United States.

Saturday’s program recognized members of fellow Divine Nine organizations, who stood and sang their fraternity and sorority’s hymns. When the Iotas hymn played, the singing was full and throaty; the words coming second nature even after five decades. No less than President Joe Biden sent in a video message to mark the occasion. 

“Thank you for the history you continue to make,” Biden said. “You’re building a tradition, not resting upon one.”

The program’s emotional high point, however, came from Spruill, who was visibly moved as he looked out on the generations of Iotas gathered around him. When the Omicron chapter at Northeastern was founded, Iota Phi Theta “was a young organization, and we were used to going to places where there were Divine Nine members,” he remembered. “But here, and I thank almighty God, we were first. I don’t want to get emotional, but [there are] 300 chapters, but not one like this.” 

“Even though the 11 other founding brothers are still angry I’m alive,” he joked wistfully, with a crack in his voice, “I thank God that he wanted me to experience this.” 

At the reception beforehand, the mood was loose and jubilant, with throngs of celebrants decked out in the Iotas signature brown and gold regalia. Ev Reynolds was a founding Omicron member. José Solis pledged in 1975. On Saturday, they caught up and looked over an album of photos from their Northeastern days. 

“José and I haven’t seen each other in probably 12 years,” Reynolds said. From his wallet he fished out his original 1973 Iota membership card, thoroughly worn but still legible. 

Alec Rodriguez, a 2017 pledge, brought along his dog, a small, doe-eyed, slate gray and white pit bull named Storm. A former university Torch Scholar who works in hospitality in Boston’s North End neighborhood, Rodriguez was eager to see familiar faces and make connections with elder members. 

Saturday evening, the celebrants attended a celebratory gala on the 17th floor of the East Village hall on campus, then wrapped things up with a farewell breakfast and closing assembly on Sunday.

“Please come back after this weekend,” O’Bryant told the group. “We can’t wait another 50 years.” 

Schuyler Velasco is a Northeastern Global News Magazine senior writer. Email her at s.velasco@northeastern.edu. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @Schuyler_V.